OKAKURA KAKUZO : Methods in the History of the Arts

I am particularly interested in two aspects that arose from Okakura Kakuzo’s existence.

One is the problem of the mythology that was involved in calling him “Okakura -Tenshin,” and the belief that the phrase “Asia is One” represents the core of Okakura’s thought. Rather, I am proposing a kind of demythologization of the legend of Okakura - Tenshin. I talked about the importance of this problem yesterday at the Gardner Museum.

The second problem concerns the possibility of developing Okakura’s methods and thoughts, especially in regard to the history of art.

Addressing both of these problems entails the demythologization of his legend. Without such a demythologization it will be impossible to begin this work.

Today, I would to talk about this project.


During his life, Okakura gave series of lectures on the History of Japanese Art three times.

The first ones were done in the years between 1890 to 1892 at the Tokyo School of Fine Art.

The second was in the period from 1899 to 1902 at Nihon-Bijutsuin; the Japan Art Institute. There are many notes which are supposed to have been used in his preparing materials for the lectures at Nihon-Bijutsuin, such as “文藝史談; Notes on the history of art and literature”, “The Confucian Age and the Laoist Age,” etc. Furthermore, The Ideals of the East, which was published in 1903 in London, seems to have been the result of those lectures. It is not a comprehensive result but a kind of summary of them.

The third and final one was presented at the Tokyo University in 1910, from April to June during the term. The title of this lecture was 泰東巧藝史, literally translated as “A History of the Arts in All Senses in The Eastern Countries.” He said (strictly speaking, it was not in his writing but in edited rough notes taken by some students) that “For this lecture, I don’t want to use the word “Fine Art” (=美術) but I’d like to use “Art” (=芸術) or “Arts in All Senses” (=巧藝). The sound of this word 巧藝 kōgei is the same as that of 工芸 (=craft art), but the meaning Okakura wished to convey by this term is quite different from craft. As he says, “芸術 or 巧藝” (art or kogei), 巧藝 is selected as a word to cover all artistic activities.

In any case, they were somewhat strange and unusual words. 泰東 was also a new word, through which he tried to convey an innovative concept that means neither “Orient” nor “East” nor “Asia”. Through his attitude concerning the title, we can imagine that Okakura was preparing to create a new phase for describing the history of art, especially the History of Japanese Art.

From the first lecture on the History of Japanese Art to the last one, that is to say through the twenty years from 1890 to 1910, Okakura’s thought concerning art and history changed.

The first lecture at Tokyo School of Fine Art was indeed a kind of pioneer work. Before Okakura, there had not been anyone who had tried to describe the “History of Japanese Art”.

Before him, in the Edo Era, there had been some descriptions of the painters, but these were simply biographical documents and not history written to explain the development of their artistic activities from a methodological concept.

Okakaura developed his first History of Japanese Art systematically by classifying the characteristics of artists through the stages of the ages, using periods, and tries to show the causalities and necessities for the development of art. At the same time, before and after his lectures on Japanese Art History, he also gave lectures on the History of European Art and perhaps he learned the methods of describing the History of Art from the examples of Western European Historians.

Among various characteristics in his attempt at presenting the first description of the History of Japanese Art we can extract three points:

1. He limits his discussion to paintings and sculptures as materials or objects in the range of his history.

2. In order to define the features of every epoch, he tries to represent the names of the artists, for example, for the epoch of Asuka, he called “The epoch of Tori 止利”.

3. He had already been sure that the Japanese Art was a successor to the Chinese Art.

As to problem 2., the naming of epochs, even in the course of the first lecture through three years, he was changing his thought. He might have thought that instead of coming up with representative artists—that is by representing epochs by the individual geniuses of the time, it was better and preferable to give abstract titles, using names that could convey the characteristics of the epochs. Consequently, he gave each period the name of an emperor or sovereign.

In his second attempt at describing the History of Japanese Art, the main characteristic change was that he was searching for the origins of the Japanese Art.

In the book The Ideals of the East, which appeared as the result of the second attempt, he began by stating “Asia is one”. It is true that this phrase was uttered under the special situation of colonial India, and also on the basis of the harvest of his research for the origins of Japanese Art.

In this book, The Ideals of the East, he proposed three sources as the origin of Japanese Art: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.

In his third lecture he showed a big change. It concerned the general conception of “art” itself. As I mentioned at the beginning of this talk, under the new title, he planned to undertake a new style, describing the History of Japanese Art by including craft objects as well as painting and sculpture. In a sense, under the word “art” or 巧藝, he was trying to observe every artistic phenomenon created by human beings. He was attempting to find and give an important significance or value to the field of art.

Furthermore, regarding the problems of the relationship between Asian countries and Japan, he was trying to undertake or establish an innovative system; that is, while admitting the three religions as the origin of Asiatic art and Japan as being the successor to these religions, he proposed that there could be a method to describe this dynamism of the thoughts as a whole. In this case “whole” does not mean “one”. 泰東巧藝史, “A History of Art in All Senses in Asiatic countries,” was a result of his experiences in Boston during ten years, but it was not accomplished; in other words, it was unfinished.

Okakura died, as I discussed yesterday, on the way to building a work to present his overall thought. And unfortunately he could not find any successors in the field of the history of art in the way he could in the world of painting.

The New Nihon Bijutsuin, 再興日本美術院, organized in 1914 after Okakura’s death. The members asserted that they themselves were the real successors to Okakura-Tenshin Sensei. They believed so, however, what they had realized was a side of the Bijutsuin of creating new Japanese painting (日本画), and not the thought of art and the history of the arts. Even if we admit that their painting activities owed to the suggestions made by Okakura Kakuzo, their ways of thinking of art were mainly the authorized ones that had been established by Japanese academics who excluded Okakura’s methods. The general stream of academism toward describing the history of Japanese art went against what Okakura Kakuzo wished and tried. As to their ideas about the history of Japanese art, the members of the Nihon Bijutsuin unintentionally went against those of their master.

Through examining the changes in Okakura Kakuzo’s thoughts on describing the history of art, we can find three important questions regarding the contemporary attitude of describing the history of art.

A: Is it possible to describe the history of art by being liberated from the notion of periodization or period classification?

B: Is it possible to be liberated from nationalism?

C: Is it possible to be liberated from the category of genres?

In regard to A, to be liberated from the framework of periodization is, in a sense, the ultimate purpose of describing the history of art. The framework of periodization may be used as an indispensable category in describing the history of art, but the history of art should not be conceived for the framework. Most everyone may say that this is natural, but in reality we cannot look at works of art in a condition that is perfectly free from the framework of period divisions (or periodization). The framework is a necessary blindfold for viewing the history of art.

In other words, in order to describe the history of art we should not forget the purpose of the framework. However, with enough appreciation for the necessity of this framework, in order to make a real dialogue with a work of art, we must always try to be free from it.

As to B, to be free from nationalism, we usually show interest, for the purpose of understanding art works, in the background of the artist; for example, what nationality is he/she? in what period did he/she live? etc. Generally, we may think that nationality is also indispensable for understanding the history of art. But nationality is a kind of invented notion created in the modern age. Therefore, it is important to be liberated from such a notion; one that should be considered mere background information.

As to C, to be liberated from the conception or category of genres, this is also very important but impossible to achieve. The conceptions of genres as painting, sculpture, craft etc. are categories that have been added after the works were born for the purpose of understanding them better. The classification of genres is not a natural attribute of the work.

Those problems, of course, have not been solved yet. Nor were they clearly proposed by Okakura in his text either. They are, however, implied by his struggle and the changes he made in order to describe a history of art.

I think none of the history of art described until now could have been born without these three issues used as structural axes. This means that the history of art cannot be formed as history without the help of periodization, classification or categorization of periods, genre and nationalism.

Therefore, the desire to describe the history of art on ground librated from these three limitations of category is important.

The fact that Okakura Kakuzo suggested these vital problems even at such an early date in the Meiji era is a very important theme that he left for us. It might have been possible for him to accomplish this at such an early date because the authorization of the history of art as academism had not yet been established. But his methods were changed intentionally by others, for political reasons, involving the forces of academism. As a result, his methods of describing the history of art have been ignored, or misinterpreted, by authorized scholars.

Thank you.

April 5, 2009 at Harvard University